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Day of Pentecost, Cycle C

Two lunar months after they reenacted the Passover meal each year, many of the ancient Israelites brought some of the first fruits and vegetables of the spring season as an offering to the Lord and to their priests as they celebrated together their spring religious and social agricultural festival. When the Torah became the unifying factor of those who survived the fall of Jerusalem and the loss of their nation, this agricultural festival, the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks after the Passover, gained additional meaning as a commemoration of the giving of the Torah to Moses by Adonai at Sinai. For Greek-speaking Israelites still later, this festival was called Pentecost because it was celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover.

The inspired Lukan writer took this process of development one step farther, transforming for followers of Jesus the Israelite agricultural and Torah festival into a Christian celebration of the beginning of Christian prophecy and the “birthday” of the Church. This is one of many instances in which the Lukan writer shaped the emerging Christian traditions by using ideas and materials from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Within our current Christian usage, the significance of our Pentecost observance is much less than is our Christmas and Easter, the other two major Christian festivals. Many congregations have Confirmation ceremonies on Pentecost, but apart from that, relatively little is done to attract interest in the rich traditions of the day. (It is the only one of the three major Christian festivals that has not been commercialized. There are few if any “Pentecost sales” in our department stores and truck and auto sales lots.)

The agricultural significance of this day is not notable for most Christians. Apart from small volume “farmers’ markets,” within our “supermarket” society, we are able to purchase fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables throughout the year. It seems that we have always had the Scriptures and the Church, and because of our multitude of somewhat independent Christian denominations the Church has had many different “birthdays.”

There are actions that we can take to educate and sensitize more members of the congregations in which we live and serve regarding the historical and spiritual significance of the Day of Pentecost. We can decorate the chancel areas of our worship centers on Pentecost Day with early produce from our gardens and orchards in the southern areas of our country, or purchase high-quality produce for this purpose in the central and northern regions. We can have someone carry a Bible into the chancel during the opening processional. We could even place a “Birthday cake” on the altar to celebrate another year of life for the Church. This will provide numerous opportunities for various members of the congregation to be involved, and everyone should, of course, share in enjoying a small piece of the “Birthday cake.” Our children (and we as adults also) will learn in this visual, tangible way to have a greater appreciation for our rich Pentecost traditions. With a few variations each year, within a few years we shall have much more interest in the Day of Pentecost and increased attendance on the occasion. If we have a children’s sermon, it will be easy to take the children to the produce, to the Bible, and to the birthday cake to teach the traditions represented by each.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

This psalm was chosen for the Christian Pentecost observance each year within our three year cycle of texts because of the mention in 104:30 of the ruach (Hebrew expressed in English as spirit, wind, or breath) of Adonai giving life to all of the creatures of the earth. The sending of the ruach of Adonai, which gives life, is contrasted with Adonai’s hiding of Adonai’s face (v. 29), which results in the death of all beings as they lose their ruach.

It would be helpful to use all of Psalm 104 and not merely the verses suggested in our lectionary. Psalm 104 is a poetic equivalent of Genesis 1:1–2:4a, more beautiful in many ways and perhaps older than the Genesis account. Also, since the Genesis account was at some point redacted into a six days of work and one day of rest liturgical pattern in order to show that God instituted the Sabbath already at the conclusion of God’s initial creative activity as the Genesis 1:1–2:4a account has been, unlike with the Genesis account, we do not become embroiled in historicity issues with Psalm 104.

Genesis 11:1-9

Among the many purposes of the Tower of Babel story, three come immediately to mind. First, the account provides an answer in story form for the etiological question, “Why are there so many different and confusing languages among the people of the earth?” Second, the story is a polemical degradation of the “evil” Babylonians and other Mesopotamians who, having no mountains on which to build their altars, built towers (ziggurats) with worship centers at their tops. Third, the account continues the theological theme of Genesis 1-11 that sinful humankind seeks to grasp divinity by force, by eating the forbidden fruit to gain knowledge of everything, by taking human life, mating with Elohim beings, and here trying to reach into the heavens. Genesis 11:1-9 is the Series C selection for the Christian Day of Pentecost because Acts 2:1-21 provides a dramatic indication that through God’s sending of the Holy Spirit the Christian gospel will be heard and understood by people of all languages. Even though people are sinful and their languages are confused, the Spirit of God makes it possible for them on the Day of Pentecost to hear about a few of the mighty acts of God.

Acts 2:1-21

This reading in Acts 2 clearly dominates the Day of Pentecost for us. It is a prime example of the Lukan playwright’s inspired creativity and literary skill. Therefore, it should be the primary basis for the message on Pentecost each year. We can hardly provide a Christian Pentecost worship service without it, just as we can hardly have a Christmas Eve service without the Lukan writer’s Luke 2:1-20 Christmas story.

The “tongues of fire” that are said in Acts 2:3 to have come upon the heads of the followers of Jesus are symbolic of the “tongues” or languages needed to proclaim the Good News about Jesus as the Risen Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, i.e., to Rome and to people throughout the Roman Empire. The inspired Lukan playwright used fire as a visible symbol of the Holy Spirit of God. The fire is a sign that the Spirit of God is resting on the disciples of Jesus. We today receive the same Spirit of God and are called to proclaim the mighty acts of God to all people in all languages just as the earliest disciples of Jesus were called to do.

Romans 8:14-17

As stated by the Apostle Paul, all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God, are in a secure relationship with God, and are heirs of the blessings of God, together with Jesus perceived as the Risen Christ, suffering together with Christ and glorified together with Christ. More than that, no one of us can ask, especially on this Day of Pentecost.

John 14:8-17 (25-27)

In John 14:16-17 the Spirit of Truth is called “another Paraclete,” who will be like the Johannine Jesus. Unlike the Johannine Jesus, however, the other Paraclete will be able to be with the followers of Jesus until the end of the age. The Spirit of Truth will be requested by the Johannine Jesus and sent by the Father. The Spirit of Truth will live with and within the Johannine followers of Jesus, and the Spirit of Truth will bring peace to them.

We notice that within this chapter 14 of the Fourth Gospel the Trinity perception of God as Father, God in Jesus as Son, and God as the Holy Spirit of Truth are linked together inseparably in order to assure and to comfort the Johannine followers of Jesus. As such this text provides for us a theological introduction to our observance of Trinity Sunday one week later.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen